Last week’s Dropout Nation analysis of how poorly D.C. area districts were providing black and Latino children with college-preparatory curricula provoked plenty of reaction. The piece also came just as the U.S. Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter informing districts and states that they must do a better job of providing poor and minority children access to comprehensive college prep learning, and as the

this_is_dropout_nation_logoYet there are other areas in which Beltway districts fall short in helping poor and minority children succeed. One lies in the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline.

Researchers such as Russell Skiba of Indiana University’s Equity Project have long ago revealed that far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school; that suspensions are far more-likely to be meted out over minor matters such as disruptive behavior and attendance — which teachers and school leaders can deal with through more-effective means; that those practices do little to improve student achievement, enhance school cultures, or make kids safer; and that children from poor and minority households are more likely to be suspended and expelled than middle class peers. Yet districts in the Washington metropolitan area, where reformers (as well as traditionalists in policy circles) are as likely to overuse such harsh discipline — and damage the futures of children — as school operators in the rest of the nation.

This is the conclusion DN has reached in its analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Database. This report, which looks at the 10 D.C.-area districts and school operators surveyed last week — Alexandria, Arlington County, D.C. Public Schools, Fairfax County, Falls Church, KIPP, Loudoun County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Prince William County — focuses on two key out-of-school suspension categories (students receiving only one out of school suspension and receiving two or more out-of-school suspensions, both of which have been combined), numbers of kids arrested and referred to law enforcement categories (also combined), and use of physical and mechanical restraints with use of seclusion. The results are shocking, yet not surprising.


equity_data_2011-2012_suspensions_regular_edRates of suspension for black children in regular classrooms are often double that for white peers: On average, the D.C.-area districts surveyed meted one or more out-of-school suspensions for 6.7 percent of black students. This rate is three times that for Latino schoolmates, and nearly seven times that for white and Asian peers. In fact, black students accounted for 61 percent of all students suspended by the 10 school operators surveyed, or 13,955 of the 22,970 kids suspended in 2011-2012. Put bluntly, a black child attending any one of these districts has greater than a one-in-20 chance of being suspended, while the likelihood for their peers is, at most two-in-100.

Fairfax County had the lowest out-of-school suspension rate for black children among the districts surveyed, meting out one or more suspensions to a mere 1.7 percent of black students. That rate was still five times higher than the suspension rate for white peers. Falls Church also ranked low on the list, with a mere 2.2 percent suspension rate for black students; the rate was six times higher than that for white students.

The worst school operator on the list? KIPP, with an eye-popping suspension rate of 19.2 percent. This means that one-fifth of black students attending its schools were kept out of school during the year. D.C. Public Schools, whose leadership is black, had the second-highest suspension rate, with 11 percent of black students suspended during the year. D.C. Public Schools also had one of the worst disparities: The suspension rate for black kids was 11 times greater than that for white peers.

As Skiba and his Indiana University colleague, Natasha T. Williams, detailed in March in a study on school discipline released last March, there is no evidence that poor and minority kids misbehave any worse than children from other socioeconomic backgrounds. If anything, as a team led by University of Pittsburgh researcher John Wallace demonstrated in a 2008 study on school referrals — the first step schools take in disciplining kids — young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers, and once referred, 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts. The point? That the consequences of school discipline policies and practices can be as racialist as overt acts by those engaged in explicit racial discrimination.

equity_data_2011-2012_arrests_regular_edFar too many districts arrested or referred their kids to juvenile justice systems: Just four school operators  — Alexandria, D.C. Public Schools, KIPP, and Prince George’s County — didn’t arrested and refused to refer their kids to juvenile justice systems. While D.C. Public Schools, KIPP, and Prince George’s can be faulted for their high out-of-school suspension rates for black children, at least they are not placing more kids into the school-to-prison pipeline, an issue highlighted last week by Wall Street Journal reporters Gary Fields and John R. Emswhiller.

This isn’t true for seven other districts. Altogether, 2,707 children were arrested or referred to juvenile courts in 2011-2012. Loudoun County either arrested or referred to the courts 1.4 percent of black kids — a rate that is three times higher than that for whites and five times that for Asians — while arresting or referring nearly one percent of Latino kids (a rate double that for whites and three times that for Asians). Prince William County arrested or referred to courts 1.3 percent of black students, double the rate for white and Asian students, while having arrested or referred nearly one percent of Latino students.

Three districts — Fairfax County, Montgomery County, and Prince William County — account for 83 percent of all arrests and referrals to the courts by the districts surveyed in this piece. Montgomery County alone arrested and referred 759 students (or 28 percent of all arrested and referred) in 2011-2012, the most of any district on the list. Montgomery County also accounted for 35.4 percent of all young black children arrested and referred, the highest level on the list; Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince William accounted for 89 percent of all black kids arrested and referred.

The fact that Beltway districts refer plenty of kids to juvenile court isn’t surprising. Districts and schools accounted for 30 percent of all status offenses (or activities that are only crimes because of the age of those involved in them) referred to juvenile court — including 65 percent of truancy cases — according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Given that many of these cases (including truancy cases often result from the failure of traditional districts to provide high-quality education to kids in their care) can be resolved by districts on their own, there is little reason why any child ends up referred to juvenile courts in the first place. Especially since the consequences — from being shackled with records that aren’t always immediately sealed once a child reaches adulthood, to risk of sexual assault and injury in juvenile jails — are so damaging to the futures of kids.

equity_data_2011-2012_suspensions_spedSuspension rates for special ed students are often double those for peers in regular classrooms: Given that the nation’s special ed ghettos are the way stations for those adults in public education consider to be unworthiest of all of high-quality education, it isn’t a shock that they are often subjected to the harshest school discipline. This is as true for school operators in the Beltway as it is for their peers in the rest of the nation.

On average, 18 percent of black special ed kids, along with 10 percent of Asian peers, 6.2 percent of Latino schoolmates, and 4.5 percent of white students, were suspended one or more times in 2011-2012. On average, the out-of-school suspension rates for special ed students served by the 10 school operators surveyed were three times higher than rates for kids in regular classrooms.

Black children in special ed were often the worst-treated compared to their schoolmates. Eight of the 1o districts suspended more than 10 percent of black kids in special ed. This is compared to just one district suspending more than 10 percent of white kids in special ed, three districts suspending more than 10 percent of Asian kids in special ed, and two districts suspending more than 10 percent of Latino kids in special ed. Black children in special ed accounted for 63 percent of the all special ed kids suspended by the 10 districts in 2011-2012; that’s 5,177 black kids out of 8,130 children in special ed suspended that year.

Among the worst offenders: KIPP, which suspended 45 percent of black special ed kids one or more times, the highest level of any school operator on the list. D.C. Public Schools, long-notorious for its more-abysmal-than-most special ed ghettos, had the second-worst suspension rate, meting out the harsh punishment to one-quarter of black kids in special ed. As for Latino kids in special ed? That’s Prince William County, which meted out one or more out-of-school suspensions to 13.5 percent of their Latino special ed kids, followed by D.C. Public Schools (with a 125 percent out-of-school suspension rate).

equity_data_2011-2012_arrested_spedSpecial ed kids are also more-likely to be arrested or referred by law enforcement: The good news, if you can call it such, is that four districts — Alexandria, D.C. Public Schools, KIPP, and P.G. County — arrested and referred none of their special ed students to juvenile courts. The bad news: That kids in special ed ghettos are four times likely to be arrested or referred to juvenile courts than kids in regular classrooms. In fact, 1,382 kids in special ed ghettos were either arrested or referred to juvenile courts in 2011-2012.

Even worse, black kids in special ed are four times more-likely to be arrested or referred to the courts than either Asian or white peers in those ghettos — and twice as likely to be sent into the pipeline to prison as Latino schoolmates. On average 3.5 percent of black special ed students are arrested or referred to courts, versus 1.5 percent of Latino schoolmates, nine-tenths of one percent of white peers, and seven-tenths of one percent of Asian students. Young black children accounted for 33 percent of all kids referred to special ed in 2011-2012.

Falls Church had the highest rate of arrests and referrals of black special ed students. It’s 15.4 percent rate was three times higher than that for Loudoun and Prince William County, the next two highest. Falls Church also had the highest rate of arresting and referring Latino special ed students at 3.6 percent. But in terms of sheer numbers, Fairfax, Montgomery County, and Prince William County stand out; the three districts account for 84 percent of all special ed students arrested and referred, as well as 88 percent of black special ed kids arrested and referred.

For kids already condemned to special ed ghettos, the consequences of being placed into the criminal and juvenile justice systems is severe. As Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader of The Hechinger Report showed last week, special ed students are unlikely to be provided high-quality education of any kind when they are in juvenile jails and prisons. Because juvenile court systems and prisons don’t keep tabs on the progress of student progress for special ed students, they are more-likely to suffer from educational (as well as criminal) abuse.

equity_data_2011-2012_seclusion_restraint_spedMontgomery County is the worst in using seclusion and restraints: Sure, the suburban Maryland district’s rates of using restraints and seclusion (or what prisoners would call solitary confinement) is low on a percentage basis. But that’s because of the size of its enrollment. The district used seclusion and restraints on 359 kids in special ed ghettos, more than 10 times the levels of KIPP (31 children) and Loudoun County (17 kids).

Even worse, Montgomery had a penchant for subjecting black kids in special ed to such abuse more often than their white or Latino counterparts. One point six percent of black special ed students were either restrained or secluded in 2011-2012, nearly three times the level for white schoolmates and eight times the level for Latino peers. But Montgomery County’s special ed students weren’t the only ones subjected to seclusion and restraints: Thirty-five kids in regular classrooms were also subjected to the barbaric practices.

The worst offender by percentage of students is KIPP, which submitted 4.6 percent of black special ed students to seclusion and restraints. The charter school chain is the only school operator in Washington, D.C. proper on the list using restraints and seclusion — and the only district with black children as a majority of enrollment doing so. [Neither D.C. Public Schools nor Prince George’s County do so.] This barbarism is unacceptable.

The good news is that most districts on the list didn’t use restraints or seclusion at all. This isn’t to say that their special ed ghettos are somehow better than those of Montgomery County, Loudoun County, or KIPP. But the good news is that they aren’t subjecting their kids to what can only be called state-sanctioned physical abuse. Yet this isn’t good enough. No child should be subjected to such barbarism, especially by teachers and school leaders trusted with nurturing and educating them.


What is clear from the data is that far too many children in the D.C. area, especially from black (as well as Latino) household, are paying the price for failed school discipline practices that do little to help them in any way. That this has gone on for so long without reformers (or even traditionalists opposed to overuse of suspensions) ringing the tocsin is just plain unacceptable.

A key step should be taken by the Obama Administration itself to investigate and hold accountable districts and other school operators overusing harsh school discipline. Certainly conservative school reformers who live in the Beltway such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli will object to this as they have to the administration’s overall effort on addressing school discipline nationwide. But as seen in the cases of Minneapolis and Tupelo, Miss. — both of which only took steps to stop overusing suspensions and other discipline after the Department of Education launched investigations into their practices — districts will not stop harming the futures of children with damaging practices on their own accord.

Another step lies with states, along with the District of Columbia. Maryland took a strong step in January when its state board of education enacted regulations to end zero tolerance discipline actions and push districts towards restorative justice approaches that actually help students learn to behave better while keeping them in school. This is already achieving some result; Montgomery County’s suspension counts declined by 37 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to state data. [The District of Columbia’s charter school board has also worked to reduce overuse of harsh school discipline.] But the Old Line State (along with D.C.) can do more on this front. This includes ending the use of restraints and seclusion practices that would be considered intolerable if done by parents; the state still allows use of restraints in case of threats of serious harm if allowed in individualized education plans. Virginia, which has done little as of late on school discipline (and only ask schools to voluntarily not use such restraints in cases other than alleged incidents of physical harm), should follow Maryland’s example and go further.

Finally, school reformers must take action in their own communities to address the overuse of harsh school discipline. It is hard for reformers to say they want the best for all children if they tolerate practices by districts to which they send their kids that harm their futures. Particularly for conservative reformers such as Petrilli, who proclaim they are concerned about disparities in overuse of discipline (even as they oppose efforts by the Obama Administration to address those matters), working on the ground is also key to proving that they actually mean what they say. Petrilli himself has already sparred with Montgomery County Supt. Joshua Starr on curricula and other issues; he should be willing to do the same on suspensions and expulsions, especially when used against our most-vulnerable children in special ed ghettos.

The time is now for reformers in the Beltway and others to finally force the end of policies and practices that damage far too many kids — especially the children, black and brown, who need to be in school the most.